Trash Is Down 5 Percent Statewide, Thanks To Vermont's Universal Recycling Law

Jul 12, 2016

Officials implementing Vermont's universal recycling law say they've seen a 5 percent decrease in trash statewide. Act 148 has banned recyclable materials from landfills for over a year now, and the state is now implementing the next phase of requirements in the law, dealing with yard and leaf debris.

Josh Kelly, the materials management chief for the Department of Environmental Conservation, says the 5 percent decrease is "a significant drop," and a sign that the law is making a difference.

"Typically that type of the fall in trash is something we've often seen associated with the 2008 recession, for example," Kelly says. "So to have that happen at a time when we're not in recession is really remarkable, showing that people are recycling ... and that the law is working.”

In the first three months, the Northeast Kingdom had a 25 percent jump in recycling tonnage. That’s significant because that region hadn’t had much by way of recycling services or participation in the past.

Now there’s a ban on disposal of leaf and yard debris along with clean wood, such as limbs, logs and clean dimensional lumber. Transfer stations and haulers must now offer leaf and yard collection, one of the new requirements that kicked in on July 1.

“For the most part, Vermonters are already managing their leaves in a way. They make a leaf pile in the fall. The kids jump in it and then they rake it off into the woods. Not many people are bagging these leaves up and paying money to throw them out. It's not it's not something we've found as a high percentage,” Kelly said. “Still, there is some leaf in yard trimmings in there, but it's not a significant portion, and many states have banned this material really just to send a message that this stuff doesn't belong in the landfill.”

Leaf and yard debris take up space and has more beneficial uses. Kelly says there are composters in Chittenden and Bennington County that will take leaves and add them to their compost mix.

"We've seen the 5 percent decrease and the uptick in recycling ... The food bank has seen a 30 percent increase in food donation recently. These are all great outcomes that in some ways we couldn't even anticipated." - Josh Kelly, Department of Environmental Conservation

The new law heads next towards composting and separating food waste in 2020. Starting next summer, though, transfer stations and haulers that take trash will be required to provide collection services for food scraps. 

“We really want to make sure that people have the options and available services before the ban goes into effect on food waste. ‘Options’ is a key word there. There are many people in Vermont who want to use their food scraps for their own home compost for their own garden, and that's terrific,” Kelly said. “Others want to have nothing to do with that, and that's OK. You can bring it to a drop-off and we're looking to see that our transfer stations have these drop off options come July 1, 2017.”

Kelly said there are many haulers that offer food scrap collection on a commercial scale and some are starting now to offer pilot services for residential curbside collection of food waste. The most successful pilot program in Brattleboro has been running for three years.

“Coupled with recycling, they actually have stopped collecting trash weekly. They're now on an every-other-week trash collection service because they're frankly just isn't as much of it," Kelly said. "And that's really the whole goal here."

"There are many people in Vermont who want to use their food scraps for their own home compost for their own garden, and that's terrific. Others want to have nothing to do with that, and that's OK." - Josh Kelly, Department of Environmental Conservation

Still, Kelly said that if everyone started separating out food waste, it would immediately overwhelm the current capacity in the state. There are 10 food scrap composters. Two permitted anaerobic digesters have started taking food waste. There are 17 farm anaerobic digesters that could potentially take food waste.  

“We are seeing more uptick in capacity at these composting sites in terms of expanding their processing capacity,” Kelly said.

“With the decrease in trash, we've seen the 5 percent decrease and the uptick in recycling. We're at 35 percent, currently up from 33 percent. We're really seeing the law working,” Kelly said. “In addition to that, the food donation story has been just tremendous. The food bank has seen a 30 percent increase in food donation recently. They expect more coming up. These are all great outcomes that in some ways we couldn't even anticipated. We're very optimistic going ahead with the next phase of the law.”